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Can Kids Learn English From Robots?

When I was growing up, computers were introduced into the classroom at a young age. In 1980, the advent of home computers, my 1st grade class learned about basic computer functions, and we learned to draw a square on a screen using basic commands. When I attended high school in the early 90s, only some of my assignments had to be typed, and our school’s computer lab only had two or three computers to use for word processing. Sometimes I had to use an electric typewriter—archaic by today’s standards. I even survived my entire university career without owning my own computer!

That would be unthinkable today, when laptops are assigned to incoming students upon registration in many universities. Laptops and tablets have become essential tools in classrooms today, even starting at the youngest ages. Technology has rapidly taken on a much bigger role in schools than ever before, but it’s only beginning. Artificial intelligence is developing at shocking speed, and there is a lot of buzz in the media about the end of jobs for many humans being replaced by robots over the next decades. But will robot technology have an effect on the way we learn at school?

Parents and teachers alike have concerns and mixed feelings about the implementation of so much technology in schools, and wonder where it will end. Will teachers ultimately be replaced by robots? If you think that’s too far-fetched to be true, think again. Walking, talking robots are already being implemented into classrooms, even for learning English!

For example, the R-learning program, which involves a small robot on wheels moving around in the classroom, is being implemented nationwide in South Korea to teach English to kindergarten children. According to one author, there can be many benefits to using this kind of technology in the classroom, such as the ability to teach more students more efficiently. They also can be useful teaching children with disabilities because the robots will never become impatient or frustrated with repetition or wrong answers; they would have no bias against disabled children. On the other hand, the author reminds us that human teachers are not only authoritarian figures for kids, but also nurturers, often playing a very important role not just in teaching academics, but in a child’s social and emotional development. If children spend too much time with robots, will they lack in empathy or social skills without the human connection to lead the way?

That is the theory of one possible effect if robots replacing human teachers in the future. But at least one article reassures us that this won’t happen. Although robots are becoming more common as a learning tool or a “helper” in the classroom, they are serving as an interface between teachers and students who may be remotely located, rather than a total replacement of a human teacher. Nevertheless, there is still a certain degree of “humanoid” interaction which is becoming more commonplace, despite resistance from teachers. So can children really learn from a robot?

When it comes to learning languages, linguist Patricia Kuhl says no. According to her research described in her TED talk, Kuhl found that babies who are learning languages only learn when the words are coming from a human. When the language is attempted to be taught via video (i.e. an electronic device), learning does not happen, at least not measurably. Humans are social beings, and it is widely accepted that language acquisition is much more efficient in a social environment, which is what happens with the immersion learning technique which we have discussed previously in this blog.

Kids who learn languages in a classroom can memorize vocabulary or rules. But kids actually learn languages much more easily through play and social interaction. Signing up for an English immersion activity, a English language day camp, or going on a holiday in another country will give them a big advantage for learning. Especially before the age of 7, according to Kuhl, children are “geniuses” and will amaze you at their ease in understanding new languages if given the right environment for learning.

So it seems that no matter how much technology we have, even if robots develop very human-like qualities and skills, the social and emotional aspect of a teacher is key to learning, especially when it comes to learning a second language like English. If you are planning to get your child an English tutor for the summer holidays, think instead about enrolling your child in an English immersion course or summer camp with lots of fun activities in English. You can find an option that suits your kids at Speak English Kids!

What do you think about technology in the classroom?

Do you think kids can learn something from robots?

We love to read your comments below!

Robot image: Alex Knight www.unsplash.com

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